Sunday, October 15, 2006

Belated Bookblogging: "The Good Fight"

Apolgies for the age of some of the links here, I wrote the bulk of this almost two months ago. FWIW, I'm up to 38 for the year, so I think I can still make my 50 in 52 plan.

In reading "The Good Fight," and then thinking about why it left me feeling more than a bit high and dry, I recently came across a series of questions. Questions which author Peter Beinart should be able to answer in the course of developing his vision of "liberal internationalism." But in the end, he probably can't, at least not within that framework, because for all the high-minded rhetoric and historical analogy at his disposal, there's no there there when we drill down from a philosophy to what polcies to follow. First, the questions

A common query:
So here’s a question: What happens if the war had been executed competantly? Let’s assume this wasn’t Donald “Special Forces Solve Everything” Rumsfield, but a real military leader like Eisenhower or MacArthur and we’d gone in the right way. Let’s assume for one imaginary moment that we played it smart, maintained stability in the region, and installed a pro-Western Democracy on par with Jordan or Turkey. Would you approve of the war then?
Callimachus (quoting Abe Lincoln):
Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert ? This is none the less injurious when effected by getting a father, or brother, or friend, into a public meeting, and there working upon his feelings till he is persuaded to write the soldier boy that he is fighting in a bad cause, for a wicked Administration of a contemptible Government, too weak to arrest and punish him if he shall desert. I think that in such a case to silence the agitator and save the boy is not only constitutional, but withal a great mercy.
M. Takhallus:
Sixty five years ago we fought a war with Japan following their attack on Pearl Harbor. Within a matter of a few months we were burning down Japanese cities. The Japanese of that era favored wood construction and we dropped incendiary bombs. Later, when the technology became available, we dropped atomic bombs. You can argue one way or the other whether there were significant, legitimate military targets in each and every case, but let's take it as granted that there were. Nevertheless, incendiaries in packed cities full of wood houses, I think we knew what would result. I think we knew the firestorms might suck the oxygen from the lungs of children as well as adults, women as well as men, opponents and supporters of the regime alike. Fair enough so far? Question: were we right or wrong to do it?

(See also here for a thoughtful follow-up)

Admittedly, these are tough questions, but a serious, 'important' tract on a "new approach" to U.S. foreign policy should provide some guidance as to how that approach would handle difficult questions...if the problem was easy there wouldn't be such strenous disagreement now would there.

And for all the good work Beinart does leading into his prescriptions, this is where he fails. Much like Andrew Sullivan, Beinart talks a good game about lessons learned, and hubris, and multilateralism. But these 'epiphanies' don't mean much if they amount to calling for "more of the same, just better."

That said, there is much to recommend here. I don't have the historical chops to dissect Beinart's discussion of post-WWII liberal foregin policy or his chapter on the rise of the violent strain of salafist Islam which seems to be the motivating ideology of Al Qaeda ("The Looming Tower" is on the book pile, and hopefully it will tell me more ), but these historical chapters are a useful primer. Further, Beinart's demolition of the errors of the Bush administration carries the tone most easily recognizable as that of a scorned lover.

In particular, I think Beinart is correct on the dangers of overly moralistic absolutism (I think the major point of contention among the posters at my other place [ed: nice catch, 'Pick] is our individual tolerance for ugly outcomes. Or, more harshly, the extent to which we believe ends can justify means.) It may came down to us having to do some nasty things that in a better world, we'd prefer not to, but a demand for purity uber alles strikes me as having the practical effect of demanding we do nothing, ever.

This is not to say that we should no longer strive for morality and ethical behavior, to the contrary. Beinart is explicit in his view that an important aspect in this conflict is the degree to which we remain true to our ideals, as well as the degree to which we are seen to remain faithful.

Which is nice, but there is a not-so-subtle irony of a book which purports to fill the void of concrete vision in liberal circles, but gives us not much more than the very platitudes sought to be replaced.

Beinart could have saved us all a lot of time by simply saying "I was very wrong. I'm sorry that I was an ass. Everything is a mess, and I have no idea what to do now. Send me a check."


Icepick said...

(I think the major point of contention among the posters here is our individual tolerance for ugly outcomes. Or, more harshly, the extent to which we believe ends can justify means.)

Do you mean the people behind the posts you link to? Or did you post this over at your other blog?

Icepick said...

And HEY! They let you go home for part of the weekend! Or did you decide to do clandestine blogging from the office?

Pooh said...

ack, nice catch...yes, I meant over there